2008-07-26

Forget about cholesterol

Stuart Buck on Overcoming Bias posted this great article summarizing Gary Taubes's book, "Good Calories, Bad Calories".

Gary Taubes appears to be making a strong case that diet-health research has developed a strong bias in the past few decades, which led to evidence being ignored that (1) cholesterol and high-fat diets might not in fact be as bad for us as we've been told, and (2) processed carbohydrates might in fact be much worse for us than we've been told.

My suspicion is that these correlations might all boil down to abdominal fat. Abdominal fat is really bad for you - especially for men. The cells in abdominal fat convert testosterone to estrogen. Because the brain regulates testosterone production based on the amount of estrogen in blood, this causes testosterone production to lower, which further throws your hormone levels out of whack. The elevated estrogen then proceeds to cause all sorts of damage, increasing your risk of heart disease and cancer.

Stuart's article mentions this from Taubes:
[In] 1961, a conference of the Association of American Physicians included a presentation showing that in comparing heart disease patients in New Haven to a healthy population, the diseased patients were much more likely to have high triglycerides than high cholesterol, thus implicating high carbohydrate diets (which elevate triglycerides).
I would like to know if this result was controlled for the amount of abdominal fat.

My suspicion is that, in the end, as far as health is concerned, diet doesn't really matter. Just stay away from outright poison and - above all, and especially if you're a male - don't be fat.

2008-07-25

John Otto

Here's a fascinating character. According to Wikipedia:
The [Colorado National Monument] area was first explored by John Otto, a drifter who settled in Grand Junction in the early 20th century. Prior to Otto's arrival, many area residents believed the canyons to be inaccessible to humans. Otto began building trails on the plateau and into the canyons. As word spread about his work, the Chamber of Commerce of Grand Junction sent a delegation to see what he was doing. The delegation returned praising both Otto's work and the scenic beauty of the wilderness area. The local newspaper began lobbying to make it a National Park.

The area was established as Colorado National Monument on May 24, 1911. Otto was hired as the first park ranger, drawing a salary of $1 per month. For the next 16 years, he continued building and maintaining trails while living in a tent in the park.
As well as:
According to Horace Albright, "Otto was a marvelous guide and knew every inch of his monument, which he tended like a personal kingdom." Among his accomplishments was carving a steep stairway up the near-vertical ascent of Independence Monolith, the largest such feature in the park, which after the park's designation he used to summit the monolith and raise an American flag. He was often dubbed "The Trail Builder" or "The Hermit of Monument Park" in newspaper and magazine stories, and was rarely seen without his two burros (named Foxie and Cookie) laden with camping equipment and provisions.
We visit these amazing places for maybe an hour, perhaps for a day.

But a century ago, there was a guy who chose to live there, for 16 years, in the middle of nowhere, hiking around the canyon with his two donkeys, living in a tent, recognized as park ranger but paid a symbolic salary only, spending all those years alone, carving trails into rock - trails that we can still walk on some 80 years later.

I find that fascinating.

2008-07-06

"Water scarcity"

Given current energy costs and up-to-date technology, what is the cost of desalinization of ocean water?

US $0.75 per cubic meter.

A nice 20-minute shower consumes about 150 liters, or about US $0.12 worth of desalinated water.

Keep this in mind next time someone asks you to "be responsible" and "conserve water".

However, it does take some 2.5 - 5 cubic meters of water, rain and all, to produce a quarter pound hamburger.

2008-07-05

The People's Romance

Thanks to an anonymous poster on Overcoming Bias for linking to Daniel B. Klein's article The People's Romance - Why people love government (as much as they do). It is an illuminating article.

Excerpts (bold font not in original):
Government creates common, effectively permanent institutions, such as the streets and roads, utility grids, the postal service, and the school system. In doing so, it determines and enforces the setting for an encompassing shared experience—or at least the myth of such experience. The business of politics creates an unfolding series of battles and dramas whose outcomes few can dismiss as unimportant. National and international news media invite citizens to envision themselves as part of an encompassing coordination of sentiments—whether the focal point is election-day results, the latest effort in the war on drugs, or emergency relief to hurricane victims—and encourage a corresponding regard for the state as a romantic force. I call the yearning for encompassing coordination of sentiment The People’s Romance (henceforth TPR) (see table 1).
Thus, TPR explains why atrocious policies such as the war on drugs can be enacted and cheered and can persist. Even though Republicans supposedly care about freedom and Democrats supposedly care about “the little guy,” the politicians do nothing to abate the policy. The vast majority of academic Democrats have never lifted a finger against this overt Nazism. As for the general population, although public opinion on the matter has shifted in the libertarian direction, it has favored the policy for generations. Many watch COPS on television to see real-life Gestapo-like bullies bust into private homes and drag off defenseless innocents to be locked in cages like animals. Thomas Szasz (1974, 1992) provides an explanation that makes this despicable undertaking understandable in terms of TPR. The targeting of drugs, drug addicts, and drug pushers is a modern instantiation of the primitive impulse to find a scapegoat against which the power and unity of the group can be organized, exercised, flaunted, and exulted in. Szasz observes that drug-abuse hysteria and the war on drugs “are pretexts for scapegoating deviants and strengthening the State” (1992, 62). “[A]s a propaganda tool, dangerous drugs are therapeutic for the body politic of the nation, welding our heterogeneous society together into one country and one people” (115).

The more shocking the violation, the more aroused is TPR. Even now, after a lapse of some seventy years, mainstream statists still lionize the riot of intervention that occurred during the New Deal era—a riot that in actuality deepened and prolonged the Great Depression (Higgs 1997) and shackled the country to terrible policies—
as a great event during a time in which “the country came together” and “we” did something. What “we did,” of course, was to assert and advance TPR.

When the policy process gets rolling, it often seems that what matters most is that “we do something.” Any new coercive intervention, any expenditure of tax dollars, is preferred to doing nothing at all, perhaps because “doing something” asserts the government’s supremacy over libertarian principles, and that assertion serves TPR.
The inability of libertarian principles to vitalize TPR is a sort of corollary to an old theme in classical-liberal economics: economic understanding brings depression to the student and unpopularity to the teacher. Economic understanding deflates TPR, so economic ignorance is bliss.
I think this article points starkly to a gloomy explanation for why statism continues to prevail.

Most people do not rise to the challenge of pondering themselves and the world deeply and rationally, but default to doing the easy thing, which is to act out emotional and behavioral patterns passed on through millennia of tribal conditioning

You can see these behaviors in action whenever a large sporting event is taking place. Feelings and passions from the same source influence how people form their opinions on political topics, and what choices they make when voting.

2008-07-04

To die for one's country

Thanks to Robin Hanson for the link to this classic Onion:
As a true patriot, I would gladly die in battle defending my homeland. I love my country more than my own life. But I would also be more than willing to give my last breath in the name of, say, Mexico, Panama, Japan, or the Czech Republic. The most honorable thing a man can do is lay down his life for his country. Or another country. The important thing is that it's a country.
Happy independence day, everyone. Happy independence day.

2008-07-03

What's wrong with the U.S. health care system?

The Freakonomics blog recently published a guest post about U.S. health care which proposes that America's "market economy approach to medicine has to change", and the way to fix the system is to have the federal government pay for everyone's health costs.

Many commenters respond that the U.S. health care system isn't really a free market, and that this is part of the problem. I agree with those comments. The U.S. government distorts the system in various ways:
  • by imposition: the government prescribes standards that may not necessarily make sense in every case; the government requires practitioners to provide treatment in some cases even if patients can't pay, transferring the cost to others;
  • by prohibition: the government tells people what medicines and drugs they can and cannot take, and under what conditions; the government prohibits markets in organs;
  • but most significantly, by distortion: when the government permits companies to pay for employees' health insurance costs out of pre-tax income, it provides an incentive whereby it is cheaper to get all health care (even if it's just a Tylenol) through this system, which provides most patients with no direct insight or control over costs. Total cost is increased and efficiency is decreased because control over the financial aspect is taken completely away from the doctor and patient in situ.
As usual, people whose ideological ancestors brought on these problems by asking for government involvement in the first place, now react to failure of this system by requiring yet more government intervention.

The logic goes that, obviously, absence of government must equal absence of control. On the other hand, more government must equal more control. So if the system is failing, then obviously, what we need is, more control.

My perception is that the system would work fine if it were simply allowed to truly function as a market. Don't force anyone to provide service they don't want to provide, and don't provide incentives for patients to surrender control over their own health care costs. Let those who wish to be treated in case of heart attacks purchase insurance for it, and let all non-urgent health care be self-paid.

Unfortunately, I do not see a true market-based system being accepted, because it implies that everyone either needs to pay for the treatment they need, or get a charity to pay it for them. If we want the system to be market-based, there can be no third option - money cannot just appear from nowhere in order to pay for those who cannot pay and cannot find a charity to help them. But such a system would be both fair and efficient: fair because cause leads to effect; efficient because those people who no one cares for, well, no one cares for. It is wrong to force people to pay for the health care expenses of those people they don't care for.

But this is hard for most tender-hearted people to accept, even as they give no second thought to how the steaks and eggs they eat come from cows and poultry living and dying in overwhelming numbers and miserable conditions. For some reason, no human should be allowed to suffer the way we make other creatures suffer. Even if we personally do not care enough for that human to help a charity pay for their medical expenses, our neighbor should do it. And if he doesn't want to, he should be forced.